What Is Beauty?

Beauty is a sense that we all recognize. It can be seen in a person’s face or the landscape of a mountain range. It can be found in a painting by Cezanne or a photograph of a waterfall. It can also be found in a cheaply made mass-manufactured knickknack, like a fidget spinner or a Pez dispenser. It can even be felt when someone holds your hand or gives you a compliment.

But what exactly is beautiful? If you ask five people what they think is beautiful, you’ll probably get a lot of different answers. That’s because beauty is not an innate trait. It’s something we all decide to see in things around us, depending on our cultural beliefs and experiences.

The classical concept of beauty focuses on the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to concepts such as proportion, harmony, and symmetry. This is a primordial Western conception of beauty, and it can be seen in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature, and music.

This view of beauty was Christianized by Thomas Aquinas, who linked the quality to the Second Person of the Trinity. Aquinas gave three qualifications for beauty: first, a thing must have integrity, which means that its various parts must follow a logic of their own. Thus a realistic portrait of a woman would not be considered beautiful if it portrays her with three eyes; whereas a cubist painting of the same person might meet this requirement because it follows its own internal logic.

Beauty must also have a pleasant taste and arouse a delight in it. This requires that we appreciate both the whole and the details, because “it is only in the details that the pleasure of beauty consists” (Plotinus, Poetics, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]). The Renaissance humanists picked up on this theme by calling beauty the pleasure of the eye.

In modern times, philosophers and writers have taken up this challenge again. The 1990s saw a revival of interest in beauty in art and philosophy, including feminist-oriented reconstrutions or reappropriations of the concept (see Brand 2000, Irigaray 1993).

It’s also important to realize that we cannot separate form from function. A person’s head or feet are beautiful, for example, because they serve a purpose in the body as a whole. In contrast, a painting that looks pretty but does nothing for its viewer is merely decorative.

A key issue in a philosophical discussion of beauty is the question of whether it can be objectively defined at all. Some people argue that it can be, while others say that definitions of beauty are purely subjective and that one’s own personal standards for beauty are the only valid ones.

A stronger line of argument is that it’s impossible to talk about what is or is not beautiful without addressing the way that we perceive and judge beauty. To that end, we should start with some examples of beauty. For each one, choose a philosophical principle or philosopher.